A professor at Ferris State University finally made the notoriously boring syllabus week entertaining. The university’s response? Put the professor on leave and open an investigation.
Ferris State professor Barry Mehler sent the students in each of his five history classes an introductory video welcoming them to his class in an anything-but-ordinary way. In the video, he pays homage to the television show “Deadwood” by referring to the audience as “cocksuckers,” jokes that students’ grades are predetermined by God, and shares his views on student selfishness during the pandemic. The video, in the spirit of George Carlin, is so amusing that it got not only students, but hundreds of thousands of people across the internet, to pay attention to syllabus week.
FIRE wrote to Ferris State in support of Mehler’s academic freedom to teach pedagogically relevant material in this comedic style.
Although the video, which Mehler calls a “show,” was meant in jest — as an entertaining introductory performance to give students some information about the class while showing off Mehler’s eccentric personality — and Mehler has performed a similar lecture, including the “Deadwood”-inspired scene, for over a decade, on Tuesday, Ferris State placed Mehler on administrative leave, alleging that he violated the university’s overbroad Employee and Student Dignity policy.
The policy, which sounds like a mother’s pre-church-service warning to an unruly child, outlines expectations to conduct oneself “with dignity and respect” and “make responsible choices.” (FIRE warned about this very policy, giving it our “yellow light” rating, meaning it could “too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”)
Today, FIRE wrote to Ferris State in support of Mehler’s academic freedom to teach pedagogically relevant material in this comedic style — even if some find it offensive. As we explain in our letter, Ferris State must drop its investigation into Mehler and return him to the classroom so as not to violate its obligation to respect faculty expressive rights under the First Amendment. FIRE is also providing Mehler with an attorney, Matthew Hoffer, through our Faculty Legal Defense Fund.
Welcome to class
Mehler begins the 14-minute video in an astronaut-like helmet, claiming to have just arrived from Rigel VII — a reference to a quarantined planet in Star Trek — to Earth, where there is a “deadly virus spreading,” referencing the COVID-19 pandemic. He continues by stating that “civilization is collapsing” and that the “level of suffering is going through the roof” before welcoming students to the “new season” of his “show” — that is, class.
After showing an advertisement for Camel cigarettes — most shows include ad breaks, after all — and talking about how cigarettes were a Native American tradition but ultimately became a U.S. marketing venture (as Mehler says, “pure capitalism: turning death into profit”), Mehler explains that the helmet he wore to open the show has filters to protect him from the pandemic.
He follows up this explanation with a soliloquy:
Now I may have fucked up my life flatter than hammered shit. But I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker and working a paying fucking union job. And no limber dick cocksucker of an administrator is going to tell me how to teach my classes, because I’m a fucking tenured professor. So if you want to go complain to your dean, fuck you. Go ahead. I’m retiring at the end of this year, and I couldn’t give a flying fuck any longer. You people are just vectors of disease to me, and I don’t want to be anywhere near you. So keep your fucking distance. If you want to talk to me, come to my Zoom.
Readers may recognize the soliloquy, as it was adapted from “Deadwood,” a show praised in its time as taking a Shakespearean — and profane — approach to the old west. Mehler uses the opportunity to explain that students must cite their sources, then cites “Deadwood” as the inspiration for his rant, playing the clip he mimicked as part of his presentation, and explaining to students that not doing so is the most common reason that students end up with a “B” on the term paper instead of an “A.”
Mehler’s next performance offers an explanation of his grading system, which he jokes is based on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: “You have no control over your grade. It doesn’t matter how fucking hard you work or how great your grades are.” He explains that the Calvinist doctrine is woven through American ideas about justice and says that if the system is “good enough for Calvin, it’s good enough for me.”
A student who watches only this clip, or who is somehow unaware of Mehler’s ironic tone, may be worried that they’ll fail the class because their grades are “randomly assigned.” Alternatively, a student who understands rhetoric may laugh along as they watch the comedic video. But the administrators who reviewed this — and we hope they at least watched it before suspending Mehler — would also have heard Mehler say that students who don’t cite sources receive lower grades, undermining any pretense that he actually does randomly assign grades. If he does, why would students who don’t correctly cite their sources receive lower grades than what destiny has preordained?
Perhaps others might not like Mehler’s teaching style. It’s probably not for everyone. But the purported reasons Ferris State is taking action — that he used naughty words and adults heard them — are not a lawful basis to suspend or sanction him. The First Amendment protects the right of faculty to utter profane words in the classroom.
As we said in our letter:
Under principles of academic freedom protected by the First Amendment, Mehler has broad discretion to use his knowledge and experience as an educator to deliver course content in the manner he deems most effective. Such speech does not lose First Amendment protection because it is profane or because others find it offensive. While Mehler’s unusual teaching style might not be to everyone’s tastes, his dramatic “performance” in the video and joking manner of discussing class policies clearly did not amount to harassment or any other unprotected speech, but was simply an attempt to introduce his students to his courses and his colorful personality in a humorous, irreverent way that students might find engaging and memorable.
In discussing his attendance policy, Mehler says that all materials necessary to earn an “A” are on the university’s e-learning platform, and that students are not required to attend class. He likens himself to students’ grandfathers:
Listen folks, I’m old enough to be your grandpa, and you people are vectors of disease to me. So when I look out at a classroom filled with 50 students, I see 50 selfish kids who don’t give a shit whether grandpa lives or dies, and if you won’t expose your grandpa to a possible infection with COVID, then stay the fuck away from me. If you don’t give a shit about whether grandpa lives or dies, by all means come to class.
Even if humorless administrators are offended by Mehler’s introductory video, it remains protected by Mehler’s academic freedom rights. Faculty enjoy autonomy in deciding how to teach pedagogically relevant material. Sometimes that means using naughty words.
Rather than protecting Mehler’s academic freedom rights, the university punished him, citing Ferris State’s Employee and Student Dignity policy. Unfortunately, Ferris State’s policy can be used to punish students and employees for such vague offenses as not conducting themselves with “dignity and respect,” not behaving in a “civil manner,” and not making “responsible choices.” It also prohibits hostile environment harassment — which has a narrow definition that is not met here. This policy is not only subjective, but overbroad, especially at a public university, whose policies must align with the First Amendment.
As we said in our letter:
Academic freedom is of “special concern to the First Amendment.” The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that the “vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital” than in institutions of higher education, as the “classroom is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas[.]’” In the classroom context, a professor’s lectures, materials, or remarks, “however repugnant” to students or others, are “protected by the First Amendment” when they are “germane to the classroom subject matter.”
In Mehler’s show, he teaches students about plagiarism, the attendance policy, grading, and more, in a fun and interesting way, giving students a preview of his syllabus and his personality. Many faculty teach the same information by just reading through a syllabus as students snore in the background. That decision is okay, as is Mehler’s pedagogical choice to explain these policies with a show.
And frankly, we at FIRE can’t stop watching.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).